In our final class for Humanitarian Innovation at MIT’s D-Lab apart from presenting our final projects and our humble inventions, which were all amazing, the class also conducted several power dynamics activities. I want to share one of these activities with you because it was eye-opening, instructive and so in line with what you have to grapple with when you are working on human rights journalism.
The activity starts by everyone in the classroom receiving a brown paper bag. You are told that you have five minutes to complete the task described in the paper bag. No other instructions are spoken out loud.
Inside my bag, there was a list of written instructions to make an origami corn on the cob. The instructions told me how to fold the paper, but the instructions often spoke about the corresponding illustrations and there were no illustrations in my bag. My bag also contained an orange and blue marker, and my instructions said that once I was done constructing the shape, I should color it yellow and make black lines across it. There was a direct imbalance between what I was being told to do and the resources I was provided to complete the task.
Feeling a little frustrated I looked up to see how others were faring. I immediately noticed that the student beside me, had a full page of illustrated instructions, she also had the correctly colored markers. I consider the classroom a safe space and so I voiced my frustration, I said it’s not fair that she was given more appropriate resources than me. As these words were tumbling out of my mouth, I noticed something glaring: although she had a complete set of instructions, one of her hands was tied behind her back! She was only allowed to use one hand to complete the activity, whereas I had both my hands!
I looked around the room. One student had a complete brown bag down to gridded origami paper, however she also had her eyes covered so she couldn’t see anything. Another student was given a URL to access the instructions, without a laptop or phone. Another was provided instructions in Romanian – a language she didn’t speak. Most of the people in the room had brown bags similar to mine – incomplete but enough to create some version of the corn on the cob.
After the five minutes were over we all discussed what was in our brown paper bags, what others were given, and how that made us feel. Here are some takeaways that I am unlikely to forget for a long time:
- Even though those conducting the activity never stated that we were competing against each other, or mentioned that there was a prize for the winner, even the idea of a winner was not mentioned, not a single person in the classroom offered to help anyone else. In a way we were told that we were competing against time, and that was enough information for us to focus only on ourselves. It’s fascinating that the culture we have cultivated does not allow room for us to offer help to each other.
- There was one student who was not impaired in any way, and she was given a complete set of instructions. Her corn on the cob was perfect. She told the class that she was so involved in completing her task, and that she never felt that she needed anything else, so she never looked up. Not once did she realize that the student next to her couldn’t see anything. We discussed how those in positions of extreme power, who need nothing, often don’t even bother to look at how others are doing.
- The student next to me, who could only use one hand, said that in a way she was glad no one offered to help her because if they had offered, they wouldn’t have let her fold herself. She was explaining that even when we do offer help to differently abled people, instead of offering help in the way they need it, we often just take charge of the project without allowing them the room and space they need.
The exercise was a perfect way to end class and also my time at MIT because it was a beautiful culmination of everything I have been learning about power, privilege, and influence.